(Cross posted at Weblogg-ed)

By all accounts, it’s been a crappy week for education. To be honest, I haven’t participated in much of it, but reading the accounts from Chris and Bud and others, and some of the Tweets from Sunday’s Education Nation sessions, it’s hard not to sense the anger, frustration, sadness and even paranoia that has infected our little part of the education world. While I know it was all heartfelt and sincere, I think I turned it all off on Sunday when a Twitter thread started to assume that certain books about the mess we’re in had been somehow pulled from Amazon by NBC so as not to interfere with its one-sided reality about what fixes we all need to make education better. It goes without saying that it was much more fun watching Tucker win his soccer game and the Jets beat up on the Dolphins than watch the attempted dismemberment of the profession live and in Tweeting color.

But the last few days have me wondering a few things, among them, how many people are really tuned into this “conversation”, how many of those will still be tuned in a month from now, and, the toughest one, are we just asking the wrong questions to begin with?

NBC understands as well as anyone the short attention span theater that is most effective to deliver a message to an increasingly dumbed down populace in this country. Crank up the machine for a few days of flooding, intensive marketing under the guise of “conversation” in sound bites and then run to the next crisis. And the irony is that education really is failing if the vast majority of people go no further than to tune into Brian Williams or Oprah for an hour, receive the intended message, and then return to their lives thinking schools are broken and that billionaire-funded charters are the answer. Mission accomplished. (Of course the greater irony is that “student achievement” really has nothing to do with the critical thinking necessary to even attempt to navigate this morass of pseudo research and rock star opinion.) My sense is that very, very few people are “engaged” in these ideas, and most of them that are are angry. And rightfully so. NBC has the money and the bandwidth and the agenda in their pockets. “We” have a lot of  passionate, kid-loving change agents who see the world a bit differently and are growing increasingly frustrated at our lack of a seat at the table.

But I guess I’m just wondering, do we even want a seat at that table? Are NBC and Oprah, and to a certain extent even the growing heroes in the movement like Diane Ravitch engaged in a debate that, at the end of the day, is going to be worth the time and energy we’re spending on it?

And this is where it gets really hard for me, because while in my heart I know that to not fight these battles in the short term to preserve the very best of what schools and classrooms are and can be would dishonor the teachers and students currently in the system, I’m continually persuaded that at the end of the day, the focus on “fixing” schools occurs at the expense of a focus on expanding the learning opportunities we give our students. I wish the two were the same, that better learning was seen as the impetus for better schools. But right now, to the mainstream at least, better “knowing” means better schools. Say what you will about online social learning tools, the networks and communities that so many of us are engaging in do afford deep, rich learning in ways that physical space cannot match. (And yes, we can say the same about physical space.) The mainstream is not yet open to the opportunities for learning our students now have, due in large measure to these technologies, and it’s nowhere near open to the idea that because of these innovations, the best outcome for our kids may be “schools” that look very little like what they look like today.

We need to be open to those ideas and more.

This post, “We’re Not Waiting for Superman, We Are Empowering Superheroes” by Diana Rhoten of Startl is the latest of many to push me in this direction. In it, she suggests that we are faced with a “massive, radical, design challenge,” that “we need to reframe the problem and the conversation, from one about re-forming schooling to one about re-thinking education and re-imagining learning.” So much of what she says in this post makes sense to me. Here’s one snip especially:

Our vision of technologically enabled learning is not one of the lone child sitting at her desktop (or laptop) passively consuming PDFs or browsing Web pages. We believe the potential of technology for learning is much greater. We believe its power resides in its ability to deliver active and interactive experiences where a learner participates in the very construction of knowledge by crafting and curating, mixing and re-mixing information with digital tools, a process which can be and should be greatly augmented by online and offline social interactions between friends, in a community of peers, or an extended network of people (both professional and amateur) who share her interests.

Technology is just a tool. Its effects ultimately depend on the people who use them, how and where. Thus, technology does not negate the role of people or place in learning, but it does change their definitions and their dynamics. And, so just as we design new technologies for learning, we must also consider the contexts for learning that will facilitate their best use … whether that is at school, at home, at the library, on the job, or a place we have not yet imagined.

And she frames what I think is a coherent (for these times, at least) vision for innovation on the edges (echoing Christensen) when she says:

We believe the edge is place in the system where the risk of failure and the opportunity for success are most allowable, and we want to be the people who to take the risk to demonstrate the opportunity. We’re not Pollyannaish about the challenges of working on the edge. We know much of what we try will fail; that’s what innovation is about. We also know that it will take time for the work we support to travel from the early adopters to the mainstream, but we don’t see an alternative. Better to demonstrate what could be than to wait for what might be.

Exactly. We should all be innovating, testing new models, failing, reflecting, trying anew, sharing the learning with others who are working on the edges in their own classrooms and projects. It’s one of the great pieces of what we do at PLP, because we are innovating and succeding and failing and rethinking on the edge. And I know that’s hard because it’s not valued and supported in most places, and I know most teachers simply can’t or won’t. It’s too hard. There’s no time. Too many barriers. But those that can, must right now. Because the reality is we simply don’t have the media, the money or the muscle to compete with the current narrative about schools, and to fret over that fact I think cuts deeply into what energy we do have to think clearly about what’s best for our kids. And because in the long run, this conversation can’t be about schools first. It has to be about learning. And through that lens, we need to be advocates for whatever is best for our kids, whether at times that might be a technology over a teacher, an online community over a school, a passion based project over a one-size fits all curriculum, a chance to create with strangers of all ages over a classroom of same-age kids working hard to game the system. Those types of innovations will at some point get the notice of the mainstream.

Let NBC and Bill Gates and Oprah have at the “fixing schools” conversation. Let’s keep our energies and our laser like focus on the learning, in whatever form that takes.

About the author
Will Richardson is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and an internationally-respected author, speaker and blogger whose focus is helping educators realize the potential of Web 2.0 technologies in their own personal and professional practice and in their classrooms. Will writes the blog Weblogg-ed and you can follow him on Twitter at @willrich45. Read more about Will here.